It’s spring, and I’m 15 years old.

LOVE being busy. No. Wait. That’s not quite right. I love feeling special and exceptional, and if I’m ever not automatically the best (or very near the best) at everything I do the first time I do it, something is seriously wrong. I’m a freshman at Ramsey Junior High School in Fort Smith, and I’m first-chair clarinet and editor of the school newspaper and student-council representative for my homeroom and lead in the community-theater play and one of 10 Ramsey Ram cheerleaders chosen from over 100 girls who tried out, and I scored fifth IN THE STATE in an algebra competition.

My mom has always seemed to expect this is who I would be—the brain, the leader, the superstar. After all, she raised me in the organization she was executive director of: Girls Inc. Where girls are strong, smart and bold. Where it doesn’t matter where a girl comes from as long as she knows where she’s going. Where it’s character, ambition and intelligence that matter. Not looks.

And I have decided to be in a pageant.

One of my fellow cheerleaders, Marti Jo, is in pageants. It’s a system called Our Diamond Miss, and Marti Jo is a queen. And I … I am not. I admire Marti Jo, and I have to admit I’m a little jealous of her. And I like sparkly dresses and rhinestone crowns! Who doesn’t? I can do this pageant thing, too. Lord knows I’m pretty; my mom has told me since I was little how beautiful I am, as a matter of fact.

“Don’t you see people turning their heads to watch you in the mall?” she asks on a weekly basis.

No. No, I don’t.

On the other hand, my mom taught me that there is no need to flaunt my attractiveness—that being pretty is like a secret you keep in your pocket; you know it’s there, but there’s no need to take it out and show everyone you meet. You just feel secure in knowing it’s there. My dad, whom I haven’t lived with since he and my mom divorced almost 10 years ago, would just as soon I throw that pocket secret right in the garbage. As far as he’s concerned, looks are the most superficial thing in the world, and only shallow people cling to them.

But maybe—just maybe—it’s time to see where my pocket secret can take me.


It’s spring 2015, and I’m 40 years old. My daughter is not yet 3.

Y HUSBAND never wanted to have a girl. He says he always thought he’d be overprotective of her. I pressed him on what exactly he meant by “overprotective,” and he hem-hawed something about feeling the need to be “restrictive” about “boys” and “clothing.” While I kind of wanted to blow a gasket at the thought of a male telling a female how to dress, as we continued our discussion, I came to understand that what he meant was that he doesn’t like how girls in our society are so often treated as nothing more than sexual objects; he wouldn’t want his little girl to be evaluated on her physical appearance alone. That while he knows women are more than a pretty package, he also knows that our society doesn’t tend to look very far beyond Hollywood’s current standard of beauty, and as this attention is much more intense on women, he’d rather not have to deal with it in the form of a daughter.

I, on the other hand, always wanted a daughter. I was disappointed when the ultrasound revealed baby No. 1 was a boy. And after baby-boy No. 2 was born, I figured no girl was coming. The husband even joked that he’d “never give me an X. Only a Y.” I encouraged him to get a vasectomy, and that was that.

Four years later, my husband and I—both civilian teachers—moved our boys to Italy so we could teach military kids stationed with their families overseas. Blame it on the wine, blame it on the fertile soil of Mount Vesuvius, blame it on the 1 percent of vasectomies that fail, but along came a surprise. A shock, really. At the ripe old age of 37, I found myself embroiled in a geriatric pregnancy (yes, that’s really what it’s called). This time, though, much to my delight, the ultrasound revealed … an impending girl. I was sick every damned day, gained less than 10 pounds the entire nine months, and I. Was. Thrilled.

I had plans for my daughter—more so than I ever had for my sons. I think it’s easier to identify with a same-sex child; you can see a life parallel to your own so much easier, and you just want them to do more and better with that life than you did with your own.

Now, I’d never thought of myself as a feminist. Raised in Arkansas in the ’80s, “feminism” was a dirty word. It meant, in part, that you were a man-hater and, in bigger part, that you were a bitch. I was not a bitch, and I certainly did not hate men. How could I be a feminist? But over time, and with the help of Webster’s Dictionary, I learned that “feminism” really meant the “political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” Did I believe women and men should have equal rights and opportunities? Was that even a real source of debate? Growing up at Girls Inc., I didn’t realize that it truly was a point of contention. I just assumed we were all equal, no “shoulds” involved. So yes, of course I’m a feminist. Always have been.

But what did being a feminist mean now that I was going to have a daughter? This little person with whom I already so strongly identified before she’d even left my womb?

Hello Kitty clothes, for one. I loved Hello Kitty growing up, and those Japanese products were hard to come by in the 20th-century South. No joke—I filled a wardrobe with Hello Kitty clothes before my daughter was ever born.

On a more significant scale, though, being a feminist meant that I, like my husband, didn’t want our daughter treated like a sexual object. It meant that I wanted her to develop her brains, her confidence, her leadership abilities, her humor and morals. I didn’t want her to be judged on her looks alone.

So now that she’s here, and we’ve moved back to the States, and she’s remarkably verbal and almost completely potty trained at the age of 2 1/2 (an almost-miracle to a mother who’s only had boys), I’ve done what any mother who wants to accomplish the goals I’ve set would do: I’ve registered her for her first pageant.


It’s summer 1990, and I’m 16.

WON the first pageant I entered.

I begged Marti Jo to teach me how to model. I figured she’d come over and put an encyclopedia on my head. Instead, she just taught me how to keep my shoulders down and extend my neck. How to stand with my left foot at a 45-degree angle, with my right foot nestled into its arch. How to walk from “X” to “X” on the stage in a T-pattern. How to stand like a pageant girl and walk like a pageant girl and charm the judges with a coy smile and unbroken eye contact like a pageant girl.

This was all pretty hilarious to me, actually. It kind of reminded me of being in a play—I was just putting on a fancy character. A character who hot-rolled her hair and walked around all day in 3-inch heels and wished for world peace. I laughed till I farted. Marti Jo frowned.

I can see why she wouldn’t be so happy with that characterization, because pageants really are more than stupid world peace, especially pageants like Our Diamond Miss. ODM is a “natural” pageant system, where looks aren’t supposed to matter as much. Contestants wear just enough makeup to make sure their features don’t wash out under the stage lights, so people in the audience can actually see them. And judges score on qualifications like poise and eye contact. Talent is an important component (so if you’re gonna twirl baton, you better actually be good at it, not just look good doing it), and an individual interview with a panel of judges—even for girls as young as 3 years old—is required and heavily weighted.

 

And yeah, there’s a component called Glamour Girl, which is facial beauty. But you don’t have to do it. But it does figure into your overall score. So you might as well, especially if you have a pocket secret.

That first pageant—a preliminary that, if you won, would pay your entries to State—was at my junior high. My home turf. And I needed every advantage I could get; my competitor had been in pageants since she was little, and I was a total newbie. She was a far more experienced model, and her piano performance of “Bumble Boogie,” a jazz riff on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” blew. My. Mind.

But I won. I was that preliminary’s Teen Miss Modeling Queen, Talent Queen and Glamour Girl.

Angela was then crowned “Our Diamond Miss.” Whatever that meant.

My mom told me she was proud of me.

My dad told me that was the last pageant he’d be coming to. It was just too against everything he believed in. But he took pictures of me in my white Mike Benet ball gown, silver sequin swirls dancing across the net skirt, three sashes gracing my shoulders and three tiaras balanced precariously on my head—before he left.

Marti Jo told me that while I won, I hadn’t really won. The girl crowned “Our Diamond Miss” is the girl who scores highest out of all the age divisions in the whole pageant (ages 3-19), and then whoever’s left in that contestant’s age division gets to have those age-division titles. Kind of like if a Miss Arkansas wins Miss America, the first runner-up at Miss Arkansas becomes Miss Arkansas.

So my competition really did beat me. Probably by a lot.

Except for Glamour Girl, I think. I think you can be both Glamour Girl and Our Diamond Miss. So maybe I was, at least, the prettiest. Could that be my biggest strength after all?


Early spring 2018. Me: 43. Rory: 5.

Y DAUGHTER’S full name is Aurora. Aurora, a very popular name in her birth country of Italy. Aurora, after the princess in Sleeping Beauty, the movie I most remember my dad taking me to after he and my mom divorced. My dad, whom I never told about the first pageant Aurora was in. My dad, who would spit if he knew I was entering Rory in pageant No. 2.

Her first pageant—held in a school cafetorium in Greenwood—left much to be desired. She was so young, and we hadn’t practiced at all. I ended up onstage with her, dancing from one marked X to the next, cajoling her to follow me the way you might entice a dog to come to you on your couch.

She won “Most Beautiful”—definitely legitimately so, since no one in her age division was named “Our Diamond Miss”—and she got a trophy and a medal hanging from a red, white and blue ribbon as if she had been competing in an Olympic trial. But she didn’t get a proper title. She didn’t get a crown.

But that wasn’t why I entered her, right? Winning a crown was secondary to those feminist goals of developing her brains and confidence and leadership abilities. Right? And maybe that time onstage—when she was the center of attention and had to keep her 2-year-old composure when she didn’t even know what was going on—maybe that helped develop some complex neural networking and taught her she could hold her own under pressure. Right?

Maybe.

So now it’s been almost three years since that first (ridiculous) attempt, and I’m telling you, I have never met a more social human being on this planet than my little 5-year-old Rory. She will get into conversations with the lady in front of us in the supermarket line and the man working on our car and any other random stranger we encounter before I can tell her, “they might not have two hours to sit and discuss My Little Pony with you” (although, with her charm, they inevitably have at least 20 minutes for My Little Pony). She positively sparkles when attention is on her. She takes tap and ballet and hip-hop and loves being onstage. And every day—EVERY day—she wakes up before dawn, asking what interesting thing we have planned for her to do today.

And, of course, she’s got a pocket-secret of her own.

So let’s see where all of this can take her.

This second pageant is at a Dardanelle school cafeteria (no stage, no -orium). We have practiced the modeling this time. She knows to hit the X’s in the T-pattern. She knows how to do “pretty feet” (the same position Marti Jo taught me almost 30 years ago, with a new and improved name). And she knows to nevernevernever break her smile or her eye contact with the judges.

We have borrowed a dress from my high school’s checkout closet. Pageants are big in Vilonia, where I teach senior English, and the librarian just so happened to have a beautiful little baby-blue pageant dress in Rory’s size. Rory’s casual wear will be a pink and black dress that perfectly matches a pink coat with black velvet cuffs and collar and a pink hat with black velvet hatband and bow. And I haven’t worried about interview at all—she’s a natural.

Party dress is first. I have curled Rory’s naturally curly hair (it needs to look polished, doesn’t it?) and done her “natural” makeup. I’ve fed her gummy bears to keep her occupied during the tedious process, and I admittedly feel somehow superior to those Toddlers & Tiaras moms because it wasn’t Pixy Stix or “go-go” juice that I gave her. Gummy bears are totally cool, right? Normal? Acceptable?

I’m nervous. Rory’s clearly not. She outright says she’s not when I ask her if she is. I do worry, though, because I know she’s not the greatest walker. When we’ve practiced modeling at home (where I laid out four X’s in Super Mario Bros. duct tape on our living room floor), she kind of stalked from point to point like the bride of Frankenstein or a linebacker. “If you do mess up,” I tell her. “Just smile and shrug your shoulders at the judges and get on with it.”

“OK, Momma,” she smiles. She kisses me and dismisses me to my picnic-table seating.

“Time for contestant No. 8, Aurora Steadman,” the announcer croons over the loudspeaker. I cringe at the name mispronunciation, but Rory doesn’t seem to notice. She practically floats to the first X, all signs of the football-player stalk melted into a Disney-princess glide. I hold my breath. She turns, and in her sparkly platform kitten heels (yes, I bought her sparkly platform kitten heels—you can find just about anything on Amazon these days), she stumbles. She quickly pulls her front foot neatly back to “pretty feet,” though, and, with a smile that I’m telling you will grow your heart three sizes, shrugs her shoulders.

The whole crowd—judges included—laughs with delight.

When she comes out in her Jackie O.-like casual ensemble, the crowd gasps audibly. I am not exaggerating. Strangers seek me out to tell me how adorable and perfect for pageants she is. The lady hosting the pageant refers me to an agent in California.

When it comes time for crowning, Rory wins facial beauty, and she wins her division. She has a sash that says “Queen” and a tiara that’s taller than any I ever won in five years of competition.

There is one other girl in her age category.

That girl wins “Our Diamond Miss.”


Summer 1991. I’m 17.

AM at my first ODM Nationals. Backstage, where rhinestone heels and backless, strapless bras litter the floor, moms duct-tape their daughters’ breasts together before zipping them into their evening gowns. These are the moms of the career girls, the ones who’ve been in pageants since they were old enough to walk; maybe even before that, their mothers carrying them onstage in their cupcake dresses. My mom, who supports me but lets me do this on my own terms, waits in the audience in the auditorium. And that’s where I want her.

It’s been more than a year since I won my first preliminary. It was a great initial taste of success, but there was a reason, I learned, why I didn’t actually win.

I wasn’t ready.

I hadn’t practiced walking enough, my talent wasn’t sophisticated enough, and facial beauty just wasn’t enough to take it all. I flat-out wasn’t prepared for serious competition. And when I went on to State with all the false confidence that a no-win win can give a pageant newbie, I got my butt handed to me. I placed dead last in modeling and talent, and I didn’t even freaking win Glamour Girl.

“I never want to do this again,” I cried to my mother.

“You don’t have to,” she replied.

So I didn’t go to Nationals that first year. Since I didn’t win anything at State I wasn’t going to have any of my fees paid, and there was no way I was going to pay out of my own pocket (which is what I chose to do, seeing as how pageants were my idea) to be publicly declared a loser. Instead, I spent the summer crying. And cursing the pageant world. And working full time at Girls Inc. to save up for another dress.

Because yes, I was always going to do this again, no matter how much I denied it.

But even after spending the year entering other pageant systems, working on a complex clarinet solo and taking out the trash in 4-inch heels, I’m realizing I might be way out of my depth yet again. I’m in Wichita, Kansas, with contestants from all over the Mid-South: Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas. I’m contestant No. 103, and I’m not even the last one. Not even close. Marti Jo warned me that it’s practically impossible to break top 10 your first year, and as for actually earning a title? Forget about it. After all, I’m up against some high-performance girls. And maybe, just maybe, I will never be like them, no matter how hard I try.

Tomorrow is the talent competition. I have an epiphany. “I want to change what I’m doing for talent,” I tell my mom. “I don’t want to play the classical clarinet.”

“I want to do stand-up comedy,” I tell her.

My mom’s face goes slack. “Heather,” she says. “You can’t do that. You haven’t practiced that at all. And there are people here ranging in age from the babies competing in the pageant to the great-grandmothers who come to watch them. There’s no way you could make all of them laugh.”

But, for some reason, I am dead-set on this comedy idea. “I have to do it,” I tell my mom. I write a routine. I practice for a day. Instead of the black strapless tuxedo dress I brought for the clarinet performance, I dig out a black pencil skirt and houndstooth blazer I packed for a casual-wear alternative, and I write notes on a tiny piece of paper and tape it to my Swatch, just in case I get under those stage lights and forget everything. In effect, I prepare to not make several hundred people laugh.

I deliver my first joke, not even remembering what I said as soon as the words leave my mouth. I hold my breath, waiting for the audience’s response.

And that response is laughter.

A lot of laughter, as a matter of fact. Laughter that grows with each subsequent zinger. I don’t know what slays more: my Cousin It impression or my poking fun at Roseanne Barr’s terrible singing of the national anthem at a Padres game. And, by golly, I score top 10 my first year at Nationals.

This pageant has been a turning point for me. I stood up for something I really felt passionate about. I began establishing my identity, not just by adding in a skill set, but also by distinguishing myself from every pageant girl around me and by beginning to become an entity separate from my mother (a big thing for an only child of a single parent to do). And since I still haven’t won the whole enchilada, but I’m clearly making progress, I’m not gonna quit. And I don’t.


Spring 2018. I’m 43, and she’s 5.

FTER RORY’S second preliminary, I had no intention of entering her in another pageant. EVER. Even though she won. Even though she appeared to have a good time. Even though, when I saw her score sheets, she received nothing lower than a 9.8.

You’d think that with such a successful preliminary run, I’d’ve felt like Rory was killing it in pageant land. So why wouldn’t I put her in another pageant? What was there to lose?

For one, the whole ordeal was too freaking stressful. She hated mascara, and I felt guilty forcing her to submit to something she hated. For two, while she won, she didn’t win, just as I didn’t really win my first preliminary. And I wasn’t having any success figuring out how to help her improve on her first performance. Was her dress not right? Was there some new way to walk these days that someone else needed to teach her? What was I doing wrong here? And why did I care whether or not she “won” or actually won? Wasn’t this supposed to just be about new experiences and confidence and all that rot?

If it really was about those things, I wouldn’t have been so dissatisfied with the outcome. Because Rory did develop confidence—she wasn’t even nervous to begin with, and she kept her cool even when she messed up. She developed social skills—she made new friends and conversed easily with the pageant announcer during the onstage question. And she was placing value where I wanted her to: on the experience, not the outcome. I mean, during the whole process—from driving there to styling her hair and makeup to changing clothes between events—I repeated to my precious little girl, “It doesn’t matter if you win, right? All that matters is if you’re having a good time? So if you don’t get a crown, it’ll be OK, right?”

And she would roll those sky-blue eyes and say, “Of course it’ll be OK, Momma.”

She seemed to know exactly what was important. So why didn’t I?

When she got her crown, she was, ultimately, sort of unimpressed. Isn’t that what I wanted? I mean, she liked the crown and all, but it didn’t rock her world. Just as I had hoped. Right?

What did rock her world, however, was the fact that she didn’t win a huge stuffed unicorn as big as her. That prize was for the overall baby winner. And Rory didn’t like that. As soon as the pageant was over, she began whining that she wanted that unicorn. Why didn’t she win the unicorn?

“You remember we talked about this?” I said. “How if you didn’t win anything at all, you’d be OK? But now you have a crown, and that’s awesome, right?”

She grudgingly agreed. But on the way home, she continued to grouse about the unicorn. “Will you get me one?” she finally asked directly.

“Honey, you got a crown. You’ve got enough for the day.”

“But this whole day was for you, Momma. Shouldn’t I get something, too?”

I was livid. I got up early and drove an hour and a half and fixed her hair and did her makeup and nervously watched her walk onstage, and ohmygoodness, was this whole day for me? I don’t want to answer that question. Don’t make me answer that question. Do we all know the answer to that question? Do I want this little girl who shares my pocket-secret to accomplish everything I never had the chance to because I didn’t start pageants soon enough to have long-term, guaranteed success?

Sorry, I refuse to answer that question. Instead, I just won’t put her in another pageant.

But now the magazine has called. “Would you be interested in doing a piece on pageants?” I’ve been asked. “About how you did them when you were younger and now your daughter is doing them?”

Is my daughter doing them? I mean, she has done them. But I’m not going to make her do them. I mean, she can do them if she wants to do them. But it really needs to be something she wants, not something I want.

“Of course I’d like to write that piece,” I respond.


Fall 1993. I’m 19.

LTIMATELY, I never did win an ODM National title. I won an American Miss National title or two. I won round crowns (what you want more than tiaras) and satin sashes with my name embroidered on the back and trophies as tall as me. I’ve matured to the point where I’ve graduated to preliminaries for Miss Arkansas (USA) (that one was held in a nursing home) and, lastly, this one—the Apple Harvest Queen Pageant, held in a high school in Lincoln. And while this isn’t a direct preliminary for Miss Arkansas (America), it’s kind of known that if you succeed here, you’ve got a real shot at the big leagues.

I’m in my second year of college at the University of Arkansas, and being in pageants has been a pretty big part of my teen years. I’ve learned quite a bit from competition, and none of it has to do with my pocket-secret. When I spent my summers working full time to pay for entry fees and dresses, I was learning about establishing goals and figuring out how to make those goals a reality, and then actually following through with it all. When I was being interviewed by a panel of judges, I was learning how to talk to a group of people in a semiformal setting about myself and about important political and social issues. And when I was losing—which I have done many times in pageants, and not so many times anywhere else—I was learning that some of the most worthwhile things don’t come easily, and if you really want to succeed, you have to suck it up and work hard and not give up.

I’ve also learned that not everything is for everyone. Doing stand-up comedy wasn’t a traditional pageant talent, and while it was me, it wasn’t ever going to actually win. And duct tape? I’m not putting myself through that. And for this pageant, we’ve been practicing the cheesiest opening dance routine to “Rhythm of the Night” by DeBarge. After four years of competing in this arena, I finally get it. Pageants aren’t me.

So this time, I decided I was just gonna be myself. I’m goofy and a smartass, and I think it’s crazy that the false breasts that line every outfit we wear are called buddies, and it’s insane that we have to put spray glue on our butts to keep our swimsuits from riding up when we model and that the time I farted from laughing so hard when I was 15 was HILARIOUS. And I’m not putting on that pageant character, and no one can make me.

I’d like to tell you I won.

I can’t.

But the other girls did vote me Miss Congeniality. And I know—I’m absolutely certain and OK with the fact—that I’ve reached the zenith of my pageant career. It’s time to retire.


May 2018. 44 and 5½.

HAD vowed to use the borrowed blue dress. But I was told that ODM prefers shoes that have been dyed to match, and hardly anywhere dyes shoes to match anymore, and I’d have to drive an hour to Clarksville to get it done, and it’ll probably cost more than anyone with half a brain should pay for shoes. And there’s this formalwear store right next to the movie theater in Conway where we live, and they have the prettiest dresses, and one of the reasons I got into pageants in the first place was the pretty dresses, and the borrowed dress doesn’t fit her perfectly, and white always wins, and then I can just buy white shoes and not have to pay to get them dyed to match. And $433.17 later, Rory has a new dress to wear to the state pageant.

“When are you going to admit you’re a pageant mom?” my husband asked me.

“I’m not a pageant mom,” I replied.

“How many times this week have you shopped for the pageant?” he pushed.

“After two sons, I’ve always loved to shop for our girl,” I non-answered. “The pageant just gives me an excuse.”

The answer was probably four. I’d probably been shopping four times that week. I think I spent $34 on hair bows alone. It’s all tax deductible, I tell myself. Research for an article I’m writing.

I guess asking her dance teacher to choreograph a tap routine and give her individual lessons is research, too. And pulling out each set of shoes for the pageant (that would be four) and walking her through the T-pattern is research. And putting just a little bit of makeup on her and taking her into a wooded area and trying to snap the perfect photogenic-winning picture and—hey!—I better get her a second outfit for casual wear in case I need an alternate, and doesn’t she need red sparkly gloves for talent? And that hair comb on Etsy with the rainbow crystals ARE ALL FOR THE ARTICLE, and not just for the fact that I’m really enjoying the fact that my daughter is going to be in another pageant, right?

Right?

State is in Lavaca, about two hours from home in Conway. We borrow my mom’s SUV and pack it full with a three-tiered makeup case and a tote for hair products and a garment bag filled with dresses and talent costumes and so many pairs of heels made in the tiniest sizes. Rory and I enter the dressing room, and I scope out the competition. There’s a little girl in an arm sling: I hope she isn’t in our division. She’ll get the sympathy vote. A little girl who looks exotic. She would get high scores as well. And yes, I know these are horrible thoughts, and no, I am not a horrible person, and no, I did not say these things to my daughter, and yes, I am telling you because I realize that this is, after everything I’ve been writing, not an exposé on the children’s pageant industrial complex. This is an exposé on me and my parenting and my values, and I am willing to look at myself and look hard. I am willing to score myself on my humanity, and frankly, I am losing.

But Rory competes. And she looks beautiful. And she is having a marginally good time. But my social little girl is leaps and bounds more collaborative than competitive, and I see the writing on the wall when I watch the other four girls in her division model and perform their talents. The best, I know, she’ll possibly finish is second runner-up. She has no chance whatsoever.

Except in Glamour Girl.

Because—I’m telling you—my little girl is a stunner. Even knowing I’m a terrible person, you have to admit I’ve been honest. So really, seriously, she could still walk out of here with a title. And I still don’t know why that’s so important to me. But since I’m still hoping for it—and I have to admit that I am—it obviously is.

Rory does not place second runner-up as I had guessed, however. No. She places dead last. In both talent and modeling. I’m pretty freaking disappointed in that. I think she got harshly judged because she went second, and the girl who went first has actually held national titles (and she was AWESOME), and with only that girl to judge against, Rory was given a low, low score. And I know that I’m rationalizing. And I know it doesn’t matter (a second runner-up isn’t any closer to winning a title than a fourth runner-up). But I really believe, had Rory appeared later in the lineup, she would’ve done better.

And in Glamour Girl?

In Glamour Girl, Rory gets first runner-up. I can’t see the winner clearly from the stage, so I look up her picture in the program. I honestly, truly believe my girl should’ve won. I know I’m biased, but more than that, I realize I’m further away than ever from the person pageants actually taught me to be.

I thought pageants had taught me that winning isn’t the thing. That you don’t compare yourself to others; you compare yourself to yourself, then work hard to get better. Yet here I am comparing my precious Rory to every other girl in her division. I am not concentrating on how much better she got at walking in just the two months we’d been working on it. On how she memorized a tap routine to James Brown’s “I Feel Good” in just one week and was brave enough to perform it in a proper auditorium full of people. On how she just likes the way her new dress feels when she twists back and forth, regardless of how model-like she is able to walk in it.

I thought pageants had taught me that beauty is cool—and can get you advantages—but isn’t the key to success. That you had to have confidence, talent and people skills to come out on top. But here I was shrugging off Rory’s chances in modeling and talent and not even celebrating her success in interview, clinging to the hope that Rory would triumph on her face alone.

More than anything, I thought pageants had taught me to know myself—to be confident in my strengths and take responsibility for my weaknesses. Yet throughout this whole affair, I have spent money when I’m usually frugal and denied what I was turning into and made excuses or created justifications for my actions and feelings instead of facing the truth and admitting whom I was becoming.

Through pageants, it seems, I gained my way, and then lost it. At least Rory’s loss at State means her fees won’t be paid to Nationals, and I won’t be tempted in the slightest to head there. So maybe I’ll be able to get my head on straight, much in the way pageants seem to be doing with their collective heads: Boys are welcome in many pageant systems, ODM now brands itself a “Youth Achievement Program,” and just this year, Miss America eliminated the swimsuit portion from its almost century-long tradition. If pageant systems can eventually figure out what’s important, maybe I can, too.

I guess this really was about me all along. Dammit.

I asked Rory if she enjoyed herself. “It was OK,” she shrugged.

“Do you wanna do it again?” I asked. I actually ask this quite often.

“Not really,” she always says, then goes back to whatever it is she’s doing—coloring or jumping on a trampoline or talking to whoever’s ear she’s snagged.

I don’t, either.

I think.